Pro Basketball’s Fun at Fort Wayne, 1955

[In the early 1950s, Charley Eckman earned his NBA stripes as a referee. Then, with zero coaching experience, the 32-year-old Eckman handed in his whistle for a suit, tie, and a seat on the bench as the head coach of the Fort Wayne Pistons. It was just another in a series of euphemistic unexpected hires by Fort Wayne’s borderline eccentric owner Fred Zollner, the “tousle-haired tycoon” with the deepest NBA pockets during the 1950s. Zollner helped bail out the league from many a financial fix.

Eckman’s roughly three-year coaching gig scored some big early successes. In fact, he was honored as the NBA’s Coach of the Year in his rookie season for piloting Fort Wayne to the 1955 championship series. They lost. Eckman and the Pistons were back in the NBA finals the next season and lost again. In season three, Eckman returned the Pistons to the playoffs, but his mojo was missing. Starting his fourth season, the Pistons simply had no spark left, and his coaching days were numbered. Eckman distilled what came next into this funny story:

A month and a half or two after the season started, Zollner called me up from Florida. We had just come back from getting beat by St. Louis by 20 points. He asks, ‘How did you do last night?’ Like he don’t get no papers in Miami. 

I said, ‘We got beat.’ 

He said, ‘What’s that matter with the team?’ 

I said, ‘Well, hell, we got a pretty bad ballclub. I got to rebuild. Yardley is hurt, and I don’t have anybody to shoot basketball. We’re not going anywhere.’ 

He said, ‘I think we’ll make a change in your department.’ 

I said, ‘Yeah, Fred, who are we going to get rid of?’ And then, I realized I was the only son of a bitch in my department.

In this article from the April 1955 issue of SPORT Magazine, the reliably-good writer Irv Goodman catches up with Zollner and the Pistons during year one of the rah-rah Eckman regime. It’s long journalism from an era most of us didn’t live, but Goodman’s words still carry some pop and provide a clear picture of the early NBA.]

Fred Zollner (l) and Charley Eckman

Fred Zollner, the man who makes pistons and dabbles in athletics, has a simple credo in sports: “It’s got to be major-league, or it’s not for me—or Fort Wayne. And, apparently, he means it. For some 15 years, the tousle-haired tycoon has tossed big chunks of money around in his efforts to run successful sports promotions in his adopted city. For a while, he spent his money like a philanthropist, more recently like a hard-headed promoter, but always with the idea of making something in the major sports field go in Fort Wayne. Some people estimate that in the past 15 years, Zollner’s promotional attempts in softball and basketball have cost him a cool million dollars.

However that may be—and no one but Zollner will ever really know how much money he has spent—he now runs professional basketball’s most expensive operation, the Fort Wayne Pistons (also known as the Fort Wayne Zollners). The cost of running the Pistons has added up to about a quarter of a million dollars—and the reason for the heavy drain has been Zollner’s insistence on a good ballclub. In 10 of the 11 years of the Pistons’ existence in organized pro basketball, the ledgers have come up heavily smeared with red at the end of the season.

Today, some, but not all, things are different at Fort Wayne. Zollner, to be sure, is still spending lots of money, he still behaves more like a fan than a boss, and his ballclub is still one of major-league sports’ most-unusual operations. But—and this is what counts most to Fred Zollner and to the citizens of Indiana’s Allen County—his money is no longer going down a bottomless drain. The years of paying high prices to get ballplayers and high salaries to keep them happy are finally bringing a return. The Pistons (for the sake of clarity, we will not refer to them as the Zollners) are an artistic success at the gate. The days of good players and losing teams, which has frustrated Zollner and Fort Wayne fans alike, seem to be over. Major-league ball has come to Fort Wayne—and it’s proving to be more fun than Fred ever thought his money could buy.

Far from the least reason for the pro basketball fun at Fort Wayne is Charley Eckman, the ex-referee who became coach of the Pistons at the start of this season. “Charley,” says Fred Zollner, “is a pistol,” and that is as good a way as any to describe the loquacious leader of the Pistons. Eckman, who never coached before and admits he could never hold down a college job—“I’d have to know too much”—is a kinetic, popgun-talking character with the instincts of a psychologist and the energy of a cheerleader.

The intricacies of basketball don’t worry or bother Charley. He figures that pros are so good that there isn’t much a coach can teach them, except that they have to play as a team. What he does know is (1) the NBA—he refereed more than 500 games in seven years in the league; (2) how to juggle personnel—“I’ve seen enough of the game to know when to substitute for a player and how to match up men”; and (3) how to work hard. One NBA coach said recently: “Every athlete lives in his own little world. Charley knows how to penetrate that world.”

“Pulverize it” might be a more-accurate description of how Eckman breaks through. A referee who used to working games with him was wondering recently how Charley does it. So, he bent his ear close to the door of the Pistons’ dressing room before a game and heard Charley blasting away. “You gotta get those rebounds off these guys,” Charley was saying. “If they get in your way, kick the stuffing out of them.”

Charley Eckman (r) converses with Fort Wayne’s Don Meineke.

What does Eckman think makes him a winning coach? “I get along with the fellows,” is his quick explanation. “We have a spirit and a feeling that we’re a good club.” This feeling, most critics believe, wasn’t there last year, though the personnel was. Charley makes no comments on this. Instead, he says: “These are pros. I don’t have to tell them when to take a shot. They know that better than I do. What I have to do is keep them happy.” Between Eckman and Zollner, the team is kept real happy.

We asked Zollner to explain the surprising choice of Eckman, whose name some sportswriters didn’t even know how to spell when his appointment was announced last April. Zollner settled back in a chair on his Fleetwood-upholstered, luxury-lined private airplane, wrung his hands characteristically, and played with the question for a while before answering.

“You think I took a helluva gamble entrusting a team—and a franchise—to a man who had never coached college or pro ball and who was at the time a mere referee. It was no gamble to me. The time had come for a change in Fort Wayne basketball. So, I canned the whole front office and took over the operation myself. My next step was to install a coach who I knew could run and nurse-maid a team without any help. I’m busy enough with pistons. Charley was my man. There never was a question of any other.”

As Zollner explained it, his mind was made up as far back as 1951 when he and Charley got together during a postgame party in Milwaukee. “There were these prima donnas there,” Fred said, “telling Charley what a great referee he was. Charley just shrugged. ‘I want to be a coach,’ he said. I never forgot that statement.”

It is no secret that the wolves in Fort Wayne (there is a pack, it seems, in every town) were on Paul Birch, then coach of the Pistons, but Zollner had promised him a full one-year contract the season before. “I couldn’t see letting him go in the middle of the season,” Fred explained. “Milwaukee made a coaching change during the season, and what good did it do them? They still finished last.”

“I made up my mind even before the playoffs were over that I wanted Charley,” Zollner says. The Lakers and Syracuse were in the finals up in Minneapolis, and I wanted to see the games badly. But I didn’t dare because Eckman was refereeing. I felt I might be tempted to talk to him, somebody might see us, and guess what was up, and let the cat out of the bag.”

Instead, Zollner called Eckman after the latter’s return to his home in Glen Burnie, Md. “Remember that conversation we had in Milwaukee three years ago?” Zollner said.

“Yup,” Eckman answered.

“You still mean what you said?”


“I’d like to see you now, but I’m on my way to Miami.”

“Don’t let that stop you,” Charley said. “I’ll fly to Miami to see you.”

He did, and on the first day there, he got the job. The news of the new Fort Wayne coach caused something of a stir in more than one household. When Birch had been let go, Andy Phillip, the veteran Piston player, applied for the job. In private conversations, at least, Phillip said he thought he would get it. When word came in about Eckman’s appointment, Andy was tempted to quit. There were reports, in fact, that he notified Zollner he was planning to retire. The first thing Eckman did after being named coach was to visit Phillip in California. (He also went to see Frankie Brian, another Piston veteran who, some people thought, was a candidate for the job, on his ranch in Louisiana.)


Charley Eckman (l) and some rah-rah.

“I told Andy I’d be a fool to pretend that I knew as much basketball as he did,” Eckman said. “But still, I was appointed coach, and I wanted him on the team. I told them I could use his help.” (The same went for Brian and everyone who figured to be on the 1954-55 squad, all of whom Eckman visited before the season.)

Whether it was a stroke of rich man’s genius or just luck finally turning good for a fellow who tries is something you will have to decide. But one thing is certain: making Eckman coach changed fortunes quickly for Zollner and his Pistons. The team which had never finished higher than third in its division in its first six years in the NBA, started fast. George Yardley, who the year before looked like a fellow who could just about keep his job, joined the league’s scoring leaders. Max Zaslofsky, a nine-year veteran of the pro leagues and supposedly fading badly, had more good nights than bad ones.

Rookie Dick Rosenthal of Notre Dame was playing a strong corner game. Both 31-year-old Brian and 32-year-old Phillip were scoring, running, and passing well. Mel Hutchins and Larry Foust, who had been standouts for the Pistons before, continued to make their points and control the boards. And, most important of all, they were playing like a team should. They were taking turns scoring. Whenever someone had a bad night, there always seemed to be another coming off the bench with “hot hands.”

Through all the early successes—and in the losing games, too—there was Eckman leading the cheers on the bench. “Go get ‘em, gang,” Charley yells at the opening tap of the game . . . “Nice and easy, big Mel” when Hutchins steps up to shoot a foul . . . “Make him work, Zas” . . . and Zaslofsky plays his man closer . . . “Some chatter, gang” . . . and on and on.

How do the pros take to Eckman’s rah-rah?

“If I score five and we win, I’m tickled pink,” says Zaslofsky. “I never enjoyed basketball like this before. It’s team spirit, and Charley’s the whole thing.”

There is more than team spirit to explain the Piston’s happy station in the NBA standings. For one thing, Zollner went out and got the horses. He never hesitated to drop a dollar for a ballplayer, even when it wasn’t a particularly judicious deal. He gambled with $20,000 three years ago when he brought Phillip, then almost a 30-year-old Whiz Kid, from the Philadelphia Warriors. The deal worked out fine for Fort Wayne; Phillip became the playmaker for the Pistons. 

But it cost Zollner $48,000 to learn that Charley Share wasn’t the right pivot man for his team. The intricacies of the Share deal were enough to warm the heart of a Branch Rickey. Charley had been drafted by the Boston Celtics, but jumped to Waterloo in the Basketball Association of America. The Pistons bought him from Waterloo for $20,000 and gave Chuck a $10,000 annual salary. But when they tried to put him into a uniform, Boston hollered. “He belongs to us,” the Celtics said.

So, to soothe Boston, Zollner acquired Bob Brannum for $15,000 and Bill Sharman for $3,000 and gave both of them to the Celtics. Sharman is now the best one-hand shot in pro ball, and Brannum is a serviceable forecourt man. Share? He plays second string for Milwaukee.

Relations between Zollner and his players are so happy that when NBA players met during the all-star break to formalize a players’ group, no Fort Wayne representative showed up. The Pistons had voted against the idea.

“Fred’s against unions,” said one Piston. “We don’t want to join any action that might offend him.”

One of the more impressive things about the Zollner basketball show is the way it travels. No other team in pro basketball has a private plane at its disposal to haul the hired hands around the country. The Pistons have a refurbished DC-3 bought from United Airlines in the fall of 1952. Engineer Zollner personally redesigned the interior, putting in extra-large bathrooms for his tall employees.

It was in Washington that we met with Zollner to get some of the material for this story. He’d flown in from Miami on the Flying Z, he calls the plane, as one of nine experts called to the capital to discuss nickel conservation. What impressed Zollner most about the meeting was that the presiding government official had kept him after the others left—to discuss basketball. That afternoon, we hopped off for Buffalo, landed after dark in a snowstorm on a slush-covered field and took in a basketball doubleheader. At midnight, Zollner was on his way again, this time to Fort Wayne.


“Politics made me a plane owner,” says Zollner. “During the election campaign of 1952, we not only couldn’t get any chartered flights for our frequent jumps, but the commercial airlines refused us space because of priorities obtained by campaigning office-seekers. I finally got fed up after being bounced around, along with a quarter of a million dollars of playing talent, on a subpar plane one bumpy night out of Minneapolis.”

He bought the two-engine plane for $61,000 and spent almost three times the original sum retooling it. It costs him about $100,000 a year to operate. On his payroll are a former airlines captain, Jack Cooney, and his co-pilot Bob Novak, plus a mechanic, all full time. Recently, a private $100,000 hangar was completed for the plane at the Fort Wayne airport. Sometimes, Zollner’s business trips conflict with those of the Pistons, and the team is forced to use public transportation. A train or commercial airliner is always a big letdown after the comforts and luxury of the Flying Z.

Thanks to Zollner, Fort Wayne is, next to Green Bay, the smallest city represented by a big-league team in pro sports. (There are 139,000 people in the Fort Wayne urban area.) Like Green Bay in the National Football League, Fort Wayne has hung onto its major-league franchises while other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and Baltimore, have lost theirs. Zollner’s little Pistons have made it possible, of course.

Yet in his first six years in the NBA, Zollner, the man who spared nothing for a winner, never had one. In that period, his teams lost more games than they won, 204 to 199. This season, ironically, with his front-office operation tightly trimmed and no high-price player purchases being made, the Pistons have been enjoying their best record since the days when they belonged to the old National Basketball League a decade ago. But oddly enough, with the success came rumors that Fred Zollner may be ready to drop his expensive hobby.


Last summer, he disbanded the Zollner softball team, once famous as the best in the country, a carefully assembled group of pros who played under the guise of plant employment but who, according to Zollner, reached the point of no return when they tried to act like pros. They were, after all, under AAU blessing.

The Coliseum

A tug of war has been going on with the customers for three seasons, or since the completion in the fall of 1952 of the new Coliseum in Fort Wayne, seating 9,500. It used to be that Fred Zollner had a good excuse for losing money on basketball. All home games were played in the old North Side High School gymnasium, which groaned under the weight of a crowd of 3,500. Zollner pushed the campaign for the municipal structure.

The new building and the new deal on the Pistons haven’t greatly changed the situation. Fred is still paying heavily to indulge his basketball enthusiasm and to help advertise his company and town. His love for basketball and other sports dates way back, but his ability to throw money around is of more recent origin.

He was born 53 years ago in Duluth, Minn., and grew up in that city the son of a machinist. Theodore Zollner later opened his own machine shop, and young Fred, at the age of 11, began hanging around the shop. At 13, he was working full-time and going to school. The struggling Zollners had no time for participant sports.

“But,” recalls Fred, “we always went in for spectator sports. When I was five, my dad took me to see my first baseball game. I went myself for the first time when I was six, and they had to come get me in the dark. My dad got worried when I didn’t reach home after a few hours. How was I to know it was over? As soon as the game ended, two pickup teams came on the field and played til dusk.”

Fred never did stop working. Two years after he completed high school, he enrolled in an extension engineering course the University of Minnesota offered in Duluth. He attended school four hours each night and one day a month traveled 330 miles to and from the University in Minneapolis. After seven years, he received his engineering degree in 1927 and went right back into the shop. Two years later, the Zollners entered the piston field. In 1931, they moved to Fort Wayne, attracted by its central location to markets and aluminum supply. Fred himself still designs and sells all the products turned out by his company, the largest independent piston manufacturer in the world.

From 30 men brought to Fort Wayne in 1931, the plant has grown to 750 employees, with a peak of 1,100 during the war. In 1936, he was asked by some of the men to sponsor a softball team in a Fort Wayne industrial league. “First,” says Fred, “I bought the balls, gloves, and bats. They wanted caps, so I bought those, too. Next game uniforms. Then I went out to see what I was buying.”

The Zollner team got clobbered by 18 runs the day he showed up. “This will never do,” Fred said to the manager of the team. “We make the best pistons in the world. Our team has to be at least as good as the product. Let’s do something about this.”


First, he reached into Kentucky for a catcher, a pitcher, and a shortstop. From Detroit, he imported a first-baseman and a centerfielder—all outstanding softball players. Soon, he had a championship team, one that reigned for years in competition with General Motors, Ford, and other industrial teams.

Zollner admits frankly that the softball fad petered out for two reasons: 1) The players killed it by not maintaining top efficiency at their regular jobs; and 2) the industrial plants that bought his products curtailed their softball programs, leaving him playing teams in Clearwater, Fla., and in other remote places. Zollner couldn’t see any advertising benefit in that.

Basketball grew up in similar fashion. Late in the 1940-41 season, a group of Indiana University stars on a barnstorming junket badly trounced the Zollner entry in the local industrial league. Zollner quickly hired Curley Armstrong and Herm Schaeffer, then touring with the all-star team. That made the Pistons too strong locally, so they took on outsiders like the New York Celtics. Then they raided the Celts for John Pelkington and one of the greatest outside shots in basketball history, fabled Bobby McDermott. Mac became the playing coach. With the addition of Buddy Jeannette and a couple of others, the Pistons, by now members of the National Basketball League, were ready to roll.

The 1942-43 season saw Zollner’s team win the first of three straight world titles. The Pistons stayed with the NBL through the 1947-48 season and then climbed aboard the BAA, forerunner of today’s NBA.

Mel Hutchins (10) and Larry Foust (16)

The post-war era brought its frustrations for Zollner. In procession, McDermott, Armstrong, Murray, Mendenhall, and Birch went through the coaching ritual of being hired and then fired. “I don’t mean to imply anything bad about the men who were running my basketball program,” says Zollner. “They worked hard, and our former general manager has a lifetime job in the plant. I’m from Minnesota, where hockey is the sport that you grow up with as a kid. But when I became a Hoosier 23 years ago, I went all the way, including basketball. I think I know the game. Our failures over the last few years can be traced to mistakes in judging player personnel.

“We had a chance to buy Mel Hutchins when he could have come real cheap. They said, ‘No, he’ll never make an offensive player.’” When the Zollners finally bought him, Hutchins cost $17,500.

That was only money. Last year, Zollner had worse troubles presented to him in the “Case of the Gambling Goon.” From Columbia University, the Pistons had picked up a precocious, but gifted, young player named Jack Molinas, who made the Pistons’ starting lineup.

But there was a night in Madison Square Garden when Molinas scored 20 points in the first half against the New York Knicks—and nothing in the second half. “I was tired,” explained Molinas.

“I was suspicious,” says Zollner.

So were the bookies who began to lay off the Pistons, a situation relayed to the league president by a New York sports editor. Zollner learned of it and, after a whirlwind investigation helped along by a record of phone calls from Molinas’ Fort Wayne residence to a grocery store in the Bronx, the Pistons boss announced the suspension of the brash rookie. There was no attempt made to hush up the incident, despite its threat to the integrity of the game. “I’d much rather the public heard it from me,” explains Zollner, “than from the New York and Fort Wayne police.”

Molinas readily admitted he bet on games—but always on Fort Wayne. He said he won $400 that way. A Bronx, N.Y. grand jury later cleared Molinas, saying that no evidence of a crime could be found.

Troubles at the gate were plaguing the Pistons, too. Fred went on a Miami kick, spurred along no doubt by the construction of his new home at nearby Golden Beach. He brought the team down for several playing dates, but the promotion was poor and the attendance worse. The Florida fiasco hastened his decision to take more active control of the basketball operation. He came right back this season and scheduled several February dates in Miami.

It’s only natural that Fred would want to interest Florida in his boys. Since the completion of his mansion on his Florida estate, valued at half a million dollars, he has been spending much of his time there. He commutes from Fort Wayne in the Flying Z.

Zollner ran into some heavy fan resentment last year when he stuck with Birch to the end of the season. He won’t admit that the criticism bothered him, but the sentiment of Fort Wayne people has always been important to him. Apparently, the dissatisfaction was shown at the Zollners’ box office at the start of this season. Despite the team’s fast getaway that earned Charley Eckman the job of coach of the Western Division team in the NBA All-Star Game, attendance was down at the Coliseum.

Many people, some of them Fort Wayne residents, felt that Zollner deserved a better break. The city owes him a lot. Once, in 1947, the first year of the award, the Chamber of Commerce named him its Man of the Year. He is the man of every year, as far as sports go in the Indiana city.

He has carried the financial burden for a Knothole Gang program, which has included 30,000 children in Allen County and made available to them softball, basketball, skating, and other recreational facilities. When the NBA held its All-Star Game in Fort Wayne two years ago, Zollner attracted publicity to the city by making his plane available, gratis, to transport New York, Boston, and Philadelphia writers to the scene.

The same zeal, of course, has gone to giving the city a good team. Everybody remembers how he used to fly Dick Groat from the campus of Duke University to Zollner games—and then back again. He has hired top-flight personnel this year and pays them top-flight wages by pro basketball standards. He has a spirited coach and a team that loves to play ball. (That’s all the players do, incidentally. They no longer work in Zollner’s plant on a part-time basis. He wants his basketball players to play basketball, and his plant employees to make pistons.)

Now if Rah-Rah Eckman can lead his players to an NBA title in 1955, Zollner hopes the Fort Wayne people will get steamed up over his team again. Maybe that quarter of the million dollars will not have been spent in vain after all.

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